Magnificent Manipulation: How the Medici Politicised Public Art

Written by: Joshua Al-Najar.

In Renaissance Florence, public spaces served as the physical manifestation of the government’s agenda. Often this took the form of art, as regimes sought to disseminate a set of ideals via public works. This communicative discourse could be wrought with problems, as the creation of artworks did not necessarily translate to control over the response. As the Medici galvanised their grip of Florence, their artistic patronage became a key tool in cultivating public support. Beginning with Cosimo de’ Medici, the family had to simultaneously augment their own status, while providing the veneer of ‘good public work’. However, this duality was not without issue. 

The Medici balancing act is perhaps best exemplified by the pair of statues by Donatello, his David (fig I.) and Judith and Holofernes (fig. II), both commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici in the 15th century. The statues stood in the courtyard of the Medici palace, which functioned as a public space due to the numerous petitioners received there. The pair were highly emblematic of Florentine values: both represented liberty’s triumph over tyranny, and thus Florence’s government over more autocratic regimes, such as Milan.

Fig. I: Donatello, David (1440s), Museo Nazionale del Bargello.  
Fig. II: Donatello, Judith and Holofernes (1457-64) Palazzo Vecchio.

The statues successfully conveyed the Medici’s status, but also their dedication to Florence’s values. The pieces were inspired by the Hellenistic Spinario, and thus they serve as an artistic expression of Cosimo de’ Medici’s education and taste for antiquity. As well as this, the Medici reimagine themselves as Florence’s ‘protectors’ in the Judith’s inscription:

          The Salvation of the state. Piero de’ Medici, son of Cosimo, dedicated this statue of a woman to both liberty and to fortitude, whereby the citizens with unvanquished and constant heart might return to the republic.

The text perfectly accompanies the visual, both clearly communicating the Medici intention to safeguard the republican institutions integral to Florentine identity. In reality, they had been eroding them for decades, but it was of crucial importance that the Medici respected Florence’s republican values – in a performative and public sense, whilst their supremacy remained informal.

The Medici’s lavish spending on art pieces, such as the David and Judith, was considered by many humanists to be a display of their dedication to bettering the city. Pieces such as these entered the city’s fabric, and thus could be a point of pride for all strata of society. This embodies the concept of ‘renaissance magnificence’, which essentially reimagines abundant spending on artworks as a virtue; the rationale dwelling in neo-Platonic thought, whereby Florence’s outer beauty reflected its virtuous characteristics. Fabulously wealthy families such as the Medici could align the enhancement of their own status with investment in the city as a whole, whilst countering the huge disparities in wealth that plagued Florence. In his Florentine Histories (1525), Niccolo Machiavelli wrote of how Lorenzo de’ Medici’s art projects had been propelled by a desire to ‘maintain abundance in the city, to keep the people united and the nobility honoured’. To humanists at least, the pretence was resounding. 

Though scholars like Machiavelli appear to have been convinced, it is crucial to unpick their support. J. Burke suggested that many humanists extolled Medici spending as they too benefitted from their ongoing patronage. Alongside the visual arts, leading families would have demonstrated their magnificence by associating with humanists; thus, encouraging lavish spending generally presented opportunities for them too. 

Many of the popolo likely resented the flagrant displays of wealth, often at their own expense. For example, with numerous patrician palaces directly displacing humbler dwellings. It can hardly be imagined that these citizens appreciated copious displays of wealth, though little has been left in the literary record. In his austere sermons, Girolamo Savonarola would highlight the ostentatious works of the elite as being built on ‘the blood of the poor’. To him, and presumably many of his followers, the fixation with outward appearances implied a neglect of the interior spirituality. 

When the Medici were expelled from Florence in 1494, the new authorities sought to reinvigorate the republican spirit that had been dampened under Cosimo’s successors. Donatello’s David and Judith were relocated from the Medici Palace to the Palazzo della Signoria, in a move which forced a new reading of the pieces. Suddenly, the Medici had become the tyrants they had once disavowed. This move indicates just how powerful the positioning of certain pieces could be in creating a political dialogue. 

As well as this relocation, the republican authorities devised their own political artworks. In 1504, Michelangelo’s David (Fig. III) was unveiled. Yet again, placement was crucial, as David was placed on a highly visible plinth, flanking the entrance to the Piazza Della Signoria. Thus, from the offset, this artistic underdog became deeply entwined with city’s republican institutions. Michelangelo’s stylistic choices clearly harkened back to the Roman republic. The naturalistic stance, lithe frame, and draped cloth over David’s back all exemplified the classical style. To many Florentines, David would come to symbolise their role as the inheritors of Rome, and also its cardinal virtues of prosperity and liberty. This is evident in an excerpt from Vasari, which reads:

         David was a ruler who had defended his people and governed them with justice so those who governed their city (presumably Florence) should defend it courageously and govern it justly.

Clearly, within the collective memory, David became synonymous with just, transparent rule – the antithesis of what the Medici had become. Lorenzo Polizotto’s work on orations has even revealed that amongst the newly sworn in gonfaloniere, (holders of prestigious communal office during the Renaissance period), some opted to refer to David in their protesti di giustizia.

Fig III: Michelangelo, David (1501-4) Galleria dell’Accademia.

Michelangelo’s David had become so embedded within Florentine political identity, that when the Medici were permanently restored in 1530 they allowed it to remain, despite the destruction of many other projects that exalted the republic. Instead, the Medici sought a counterbalance to David’s ideological weight, and this came in the form of Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus (Fig. IV) in 1534. Bandinelli’s Hercules contrasted David: David was reticent and slender, Hercules was bombastic and imperious. This artistic dichotomy reflected Florence’s transition from a republic to an autocracy. Herculean triumph was associated with strength and wisdom, which appeared as more desirable motifs for the reinvigorated Medici dukes. 

Fig. IV: Baccio Bandinelli, Hercules and Cacus (1534) Piazza della Signoria.

The populace was not entirely convinced. Critics recognised the piece as a vestige of Medici muscle, with Benvenuto Cellini’s Vita (1558) recording one hundred disparaging poems littering the Hercules’ platform. Though Cellini likely exaggerates – he was a rival to Bandinelli – some of these poems survive. One of the sonetti caudate (an expanded sonnet form) supposes the animated Hercules deriding the supplicant Cacus, who is a thinly-veiled allegory of Florence. The poet references “the cows of Florence”, likely referencing La Vacca, a bell which had long been associated with Florentine liberty, that had been melted down by Alessandro Medici. The poet imitates an ‘everyday-man’ of the body politic, but was likely a member of the literary elite; however, he shows signs of the political disenchantment that impacted all Florentines. 

Art was a powerful method for the Medici to convey their political convictions and heighten their status. They recognised its importance within the identity of the Florentine republic, and were able to warp that sentiment to their own advantage. Once Florence was brutalised and their dominion was secure, the Medici were able to eschew republican pretence and bear their autocratic intent. Despite this, the Florentine public had autonomy over their own response, and utilised it both in support and against the Medici. 

Bibliography

Burke, J. Changing Patrons: Social Identity and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Florence. (Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 2004): 77. 

Crum, Roger J., and Paoletti, John T. Renaissance Florence: A Social History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Paoletti, John T., and Bagemihl, Rolf. Michelangelo’s David: Florentine History and Civic Identity. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Trachtenberg, Marvin. Dominion of the Eye: Urbanism, Art, and Power in Early Modern Florence. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Waldman, Louis. “”Miracol’ Novo Et Raro”: Two Unpublished Contemporary Satires on Bandinelli’s ‘Hercules’.” (Mitteilungen Des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 38, 1994): 419.

Woods, Kim., Richardson, Carol M. and Angeliki. Lymberopoulou. Viewing Renaissance Art. Renaissance Art Reconsidered; v. 3. London (2007).

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